WASHINGTON -- Vetoing a stem cell bill for the second time, President Bush on Wednesday sought to placate those who disagree with him by signing an executive order urging scientists toward what he termed "ethically responsible" research in the field.
Bush announced no new federal dollars for stem cell research, which supporters say holds the promise of disease cures, and his order would not allow researchers to do anything they couldn't do under existing restrictions.
Announcing his veto to a roomful of supporters, Bush said, "If this legislation became law, it would compel American taxpayers for the first time in our history to support the deliberate destruction of human embryos. I made it clear to Congress and to the American people that I will not allow our nation to cross this moral line."
He vetoed similar embryonic stem cell legislation last July.
His executive order encourages scientists to work with the government to add other kinds of stem cell research to the list of projects eligible for federal funding -- so long as it does not create, harm or destroy human embryos.
Democrats, focusing on the potential for cures or treatments of Parkinson's, Alzheimer's and other diseases, made the embryonic stem cell legislation a priority when they took control of the House and Senate in January.
"President Bush won't listen to the more than 500 leading organizations who support the bill including AARP, the American Medical Association and the American Diabetes Association, just to name a few," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said.
"President Bush won't listen to the 80 Nobel laureates or his own director of the National Institutes of Health, who all support embryonic stem cell research. Most importantly, President Bush won't listen to the overwhelming majority of Americans who call out for stem cell research."
Reid said he would schedule an override vote "very, very quickly," but not until Wyoming selects a temporary replacement for Republican Sen. Craig Thomas, who died two weeks ago. Democrats do not have enough votes to override Bush's veto.
The stem cell issue has weighty political and ethical implications. Public opinion polls show strong support for the research, and it could return as an issue in the 2008 elections.
Republican presidential hopefuls are split on the scope of federal involvement in embryonic stem cell research. Sen. John McCain of Arizona and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani have broken with Bush -- and the GOP's social conservatives -- in backing the expansion of federal funding for such research. At the Republican debate May 3, Giuliani said he supports such an expansion with limits, "as long as we're not creating life in order to destroy it, as long as we're not having human cloning."
Rivals Mitt Romney and Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas oppose the expansion. As governor of Massachusetts, Romney tried to stop legislation that encouraged expanded embryonic stem cell research. His veto was overturned.
Most of the Democratic candidates have urged Bush to expand the research.
The president is "deferring the hopes of millions of Americans who do not have the time to keep waiting for the cure that may save or extend lives," Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama said.
Sen. Hillary Clinton said if she is elected president, she will lift restrictions on stem cell research.
"This is just one example of how the president puts ideology before science, politics before the needs of our families," she said.
Scientists were first able to conduct research with embryonic stem cells in 1998, according to the National Institutes of Health. There were no federal funds available for the work until Bush announced on Aug. 9, 2001, that his administration would spend tax money for research on lines of cells that already were in existence.
The White House says that since 2001, the administration has made $130 million available for research on stem cell lines derived from embryos that already had been destroyed before Bush's policy was announced. It also has provided more than $3 billion in federal dollars for research on non-embryonic sources.
Currently, states and private organizations are permitted to fund embryonic stem cell research, but federal support is limited to cells that existed as of Aug. 9, 2001. The latest bill was aimed at lifting that restriction.
Bush said his executive order directs the Health and Human Services Department to promote research into cells that -- like human embryonic stem cells -- also hold the potential of regenerating into different types of cells that might be used to battle disease, and make them eligible for federal funding.
The order also renames the NIH's Embryonic Stem Cell Registry the Pluripotent Stem Cell Registry so that it reflects what the stem cells can do, instead of their origin. Pluripotent stem cells are ones that can give rise to any kind of cell in the body except those required to develop a fetus.
"Destroying human life in the hopes of saving human life is not ethical, and it is not the only option before us," said Bush, who appeared on stage with Kaitlyne McNamara of Middletown, Conn., who was born with spina bifida, and is benefiting from what he called "ethical stem cell research."
Sean Tipton, president of the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research, expressed anger and disgust at the veto and Bush's order.
"His executive order directing NIH to continue pursing alternate forms of research is nothing new since NIH has already been conducting this research for the past 20 years," Tipton said.
Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo., the bill's chief Democratic supporter who has a daughter with juvenile diabetes, said the executive order is not a substitute for easing funding restrictions.
"While I support these other methods of research, the consensus among the scientific community is that these methods are years behind the progress of embryonic stem cell research," she said, adding that British scientists recently announced that embryonic stem cells may be used to cure a form of macular degeneration within five years. "This research was made possible by an anonymous donation from a U.S. donor, who has become frustrated by curbs on stem cell work in this country."